Adventures in Biomorphic Abstraction

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Polish-born, Malta-based painter Wioletta Kulewska about her new exhibition of paintings, Embedded, which takes its cue from ‘the elemental process of fossilisation’

Blue - Composition I by Wioletta Kulewska (oil paint and charcoal on canvas, 140 x 200cm)
Blue - Composition I by Wioletta Kulewska (oil paint and charcoal on canvas, 140 x 200cm)

Could you tell us a little bit about your beginnings and training as a visual artist? And what led you to Malta, to focus on the kind of work that you will be exhibiting in this show, in particular?

I come from Poland, where culture and the arts play a fundamental role, and have helped us to survive the worst moments in our history. People like me, who have been trained in the Polish school of Fine Arts, all started our careers as colourists following the ‘Capist’ and ‘Fauvism’ aesthetics in painting. But then, we were also strongly influenced by artists like Władysław Strzemiński, who not only aimed to transform so-called ‘high art’ – painting, sculpture, architecture – but  what was broadly understood to be ‘design’ at the time. I started painting at the Community Arts Centre in Poland at age 10, and continued my traditional art education both in the High School of Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts.

The ‘Embedded’ project was developed during my Painting in Contemporary practice course at Slade School of Fine Arts last summer. I brought the project to the studio and it was a very long and challenging process. I ended up doing sculptures to recreate the elemental process of fossilisation, and then working on print reliefs and paintings.

I’ve been fascinated with marine fossils for many years. I’ve made many sketches, studies and photographs of them. When you go for a walk around Malta you can find a number of beautiful and well-preserved fossils imprinted on the Maltese rock layers. When you look at them closely, this preserved evidence of ancient life becomes your world, in that moment. I discovered them during one of my walks. They have different shapes, patterns and textures, and they are deeply embedded in our rocks. They were also living organisms, once upon a time. I’ve decided to study them closely and give them a new life and meaning. I want the audience to notice their beauty through painting, but also reflect on subjects like embodiment, resemblance and disappearance.

Was the natural world always a key inspiration for your work, and what’s your process usually like when it comes to directly transmuting that inspiration into tangible works?

I wouldn’t say that the natural world is a key inspiration for my work. Everything is an inspiration. My process is rooted in the close forensic studio observation of natural phenomena, but I also employ a spontaneous method of ‘on-the-spot’ figurative painting. Nature is probably the only good thing about this world. I paint a lot from observation and ‘on-the-spot’ and then I develop these ideas and sketches further. Effectively, what I do is combine outdoor painting with studio practice. Painting is definitely the highest and the most important form of art for me... it takes a whole lifetime to learn about it.


How would you say the works presented in ‘Embedded’ compare to some of your previous efforts, and what do you hope the audience will get out of the exhibition?

Embedded is a ‘collection’ of abstract, biomorphic paintings. I don’t think I will ever make this kind of ‘series’ again. It’s a specific subject and a specific visual language. In fine art, the term ‘Biomorphic Abstraction’ describes the use of rounded abstract forms based on those found in nature. ‘Biomorphic’ comes from combining the Greek words ‘bios’, meaning life, and ‘morphe’, meaning form. The term came into use around the 1930s to describe the imagery in the more abstract types of surrealist painting and sculpture particularly in the work of Joan Miró the British sculptors Barbara Hepworth or Louise Bourgeois.

Untitled, no.3-6 by Wioletta Kulewska (oil paint & 22K Gold leaf on board, 50 x 60cm)
Untitled, no.3-6 by Wioletta Kulewska (oil paint & 22K Gold leaf on board, 50 x 60cm)

However, the subject of the exhibition is not all that important anymore – I would rather people just looked at the paintings themselves. The work included in this exhibition will highlight my personal interpretations. Contemporary shapes, use of colour and visual language are a stark and playful contrast to that which is embedded on our Maltese shores. There is a lot to reflect on through this project – life, death, time, past and present, Earth’s natural phenomena or simply nature’s intrinsic originality.

I think we should look at every painting in this show individually, even if they form part of a series. Each of them tells a story. I personally find them very ‘feminine’, just like marine fossils themselves – brittle, unbreakable, timeless.

What do you make of the local visual arts scene, and what would you change about it, especially now that Valletta is serving as European Capital of Culture in 2018?

I’m glad to see a lot of new galleries open in Valletta. It’s a good sign. I’m hoping to see more of a better quality ‘art exhibitions’ around. It’s not about quantity in the end, but about quality. Malta needs a proper art school and art education to start with. I don’t always agree that an art education is a good thing, necessarily, however, this is a very important starting point for young artists. You can’t call yourself an artist after completing a one or two-year course. You just simply don’t have the knowledge, experience and practice. In Malta everyone is an art critic and everyone is an artist. But the truth is that it takes a whole life time to learn about what you’re doing (unless, of course, you’re a genius).

I see a lot of ‘art’ around, but not all that much passion. And art is all about passion.

I’m very happy to be able to showcase my work during Valletta’s year as European Capital of Culture, since I’ve been living and working on the island over the past nine years, and this exhibition has been a long time coming. Not to mention that, like any other exhibition, it was a costly affair that took up a lot of time. So it feels rewarding to be able to showcase this work during this crucial period for the city, and for Malta as a whole.

What’s next for you?

I’m going back to Slade again this year, and I’m currently developing some ideas for a more figurative body of work. But the most exciting bit of ‘news’ that I could give myself, personally, is that I will continue painting.